This book has Hollywood written all over it. Who can possibly resist a story about a maverick Texas congressman who managed to bring the Soviet Union to its knees? "Charlie Wilson's War" is a cross between Tom Clancy and Carl Hiaasen, with the distinguishing feature that it's all apparently true.
Mind you, casting the film might be difficult. First, there's Charlie Wilson, the lover of Afghans and Israelis, an alcoholic playboy whose fondness for young women and cocaine occasionally threatened to upset his mission to save the world. Then there's Gust Avrakotos, the thuggish CIA agent given to arranging magical spells in order to thwart his enemies. Finally, throw in a middle-aged Texan belly dancer, an assortment of Congressional loonies, a few beauty queens, some ruthless Afghan rebels, and a murderous Pakistani dictator who only wants to be understood. (And, yes, this story is true.)
According to Diane Sawyer, who knew him well in the 1980s, Wilson was "untamed." He had a very clear view of what was right and what was wrong, and never bothered to investigate beyond first impressions. The Afghan mujahideen were heroes for the simple reason that they were fighting Russians. The primitive nature of their struggle made them all the more heroic, according to Wilson, who considered their "cause only slightly below Christianity."
Wilson was not a well-known congressman, but he was a powerful one. His position on the Appropriations Committee meant that he had a hand in controlling the virtually limitless funds that could be used for covert operations. He also had an impressive talent for manipulating colleagues to support his pet projects.
The United States was not supposed to be supporting the Afghans against the Soviet Union. Money for the rebels was therefore funneled through the CIA, which bought weapons that were in turn passed to the Pakistanis, who transported them to the Afghans. One of the great and ultimately tragic ironies of this arrangement was that most mujahideen rebels never learned who was helping them, an omission that went on to complicate America's war on terrorism considerably.
We should remind ourselves that Wilson's antics occurred against the backdrop of the Iran-contra debacle. Circumspect CIA agents initially decided that Wilson spelled danger. But then a bit of luck came his way. The CIA's Afghan operation was taken over by agent Avrakotos, who shared Wilson's simplistic sense of right and wrong and also his willingness to bend the rules in service to the greater good.
The CIA stipulated that weapons for the Afghans not be traceable to the US. To meet this requirement, the agents had to find Russian arms that the Afghans could claim had been captured from their enemies. Soviet weaponry was gathered from some unlikely places. Wilson somehow managed to persuade the Israelis to provide Soviet weapons captured from the PLO to Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan. It's a crazy world.
Unfortunately for Wilson, the Afghans and Pakistanis had trouble satisfying his hedonistic tastes. Driven crazy by their asceticism during his first visit, he vowed never to return without a "secretary" by his side. On subsequent trips he brought his personal belly dancer or some "ladies" called Sweetums or Snowflake. This annoyed his hosts, but they could hardly complain, given the military bounty he brought.
While reading this bizarre book, I fully expected that at some point George Crile, a longtime 60 Minutes producer, would admit that it's all a spoof. But it's true, and that's scary. The Logan Act stipulates that private citizens are not supposed to carry out their own foreign policy. But that hardly deterred Wilson and Avrakotos. And what's more frightening, no one seemed to notice their billion-dollar caper.
Crile's approach, however, is disturbingly amoral. Granted, excessive moralizing would ruin a good story. But Crile, like so many others, has apparently come under Wilson's spell. At one point, he admits that he can't decide whether Wilson is a hero or a clown. In fact, he's a criminal and belongs behind bars, perhaps with Avrakotos in an adjoining cell. (He retired from Congress in 1996 and became a Washington lobbyist.)
Winston Churchill once admitted that, if Hitler invaded hell, the British would have to learn to like the devil. But the principle that one's enemy's enemy is one's friend makes for bad foreign policy. Wilson, for instance, idolized the Afghan rebel Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But by March 2002, the CIA was trying to eliminate Gulbuddin, a pal of Osama bin Laden. Last October, US forces found dozens of shoulder-launched missiles in Al Qaeda hideouts, weapons originally sent by Charlie Wilson. "We did everything anyone could think of to get them back," Wilson remarks, rather too innocently. The big fear is that terrorists will use the missiles against American airliners. "That's the kind of thing that absolutely scares me to death," Wilson confesses.
So it should.
• Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.